Hesburgh lecturer calls for a ‘spirituality of caring’ for those in helping professions

GREENVILLE — The 2009 Hesburgh Alumni Lecture was about suffering, how to deal with it in others, and maintaining one’s compassion in the midst of it.
The April 23 lecture and PowerPoint presentation at Furman University were delivered by Dominic O. Vachon, Ph.D., a practicing psychologist who teaches at the University of Notre Dame and runs a training program for medical practitioners in South Bend, Ind.
Vachon said that there is a spiritual risk involved with caring for others.
“The danger is compassion fatigue. We saw that after 9/11. But human beings are built connected to each other, so compassion is not a luxury or an option, and it can lead to incredible rewards,” he said. “People who care for people and who do it well find it as a series of spiritual awakenings.”
Caregivers can get overwhelmed, he said, and often go through a faith crisis in the face of great suffering.
“It can lead to despair, hopelessness and meaninglessness … It can be temporary and fleeting, and then the person returns to established spiritual pathways,” he said.
Vachon quoted from the book “Holding the Thread of Life, A Human Response to the Unraveling of the World,” by noted philosopher Michael Meade: “That when despair is present, their imagination, the vision of their life is greater … as if the brightness of their vision is intensified by the darkness of the circumstances.”
The key to surviving in a helping profession — which Vachon defined as any job, paid or unpaid, that is a help to humanity — is to develop a “spirituality of caring.”
Vachon is a Catholic but did not mention a specific religion when he called for a connection with the Divine to obtain meaning and energy when facing pain and suffering in others. He spoke of Mother Teresa and Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche, as examples of true empathic concern.
To explain how a philosophy of caring, what he called the opposite of apathy, can assist a person in a helping profession, Vachon used the analogy of cairns that mark the way in mountain climbing when the path ahead is unclear. Cairns are piles of rocks formed by previous climbers that mark the direction of the next section of trail.
“When we go into pain, with the Divine at our side, we will see the cairn for the next 100 yards,” Vachon said.
He said that some people see caring as a gateway to the sacred, and that ultimately, suffering people want nothing more from a caregiver than “to know you are there with them.”
Franciscan Father Patrick Tuttle, pastor of St. Anthony of Padua Church and chaplain at Furman, called the lecture “a wonderful speech,” and said that it would help shape the worldview of the large crowd who came to listen and ask questions.
James McClooney, a recovering addict who counsels people with alcohol and drug addictions, said that the talk was useful in his work.
“We must draw boundaries for those suffering with addictions. Don’t let the failures fall back on you because you cannot give up,” he said.
David L. Gandolfo, assistant professor of philosophy at Furman and faculty advisor for the school’s Catholic Campus Ministry, said that Vachon’s presentation was a boon for college students.
“Especially at Furman, where many of our students come from privileged backgrounds. It will help keep them in touch with reality,” Gandolfo said.
The annual Hesburgh Alumni Lecture was sponsored by Furman’s Office of the Chaplains and The Notre Dame Club of the Western Carolinas.